August 30, 2005

The Culture of the Roman Plebs, Nicholas Horsfall

It's a short little monograph, as the largest fact is that nobody knows much about the (language) culture of the Roman plebs because nobody wrote much down about it; the evidence he can cite is scene-setting, or circumstantial, or drawn from polemics against the plebs written centuries apart.

Horsfall's argument that the plebs probably had musical culture despite "their culpable unGreekness" p. 25) is a delicate outline; we know they sang, to memorize (arithmetic) or express political opinion or repeat the pleasures of the theater. Maybe we don't know what languages they could sing in. He thinks they probably knew some Greek, what with so many soldiers rotating through Greece, and so many Greek workers and slaves living in Rome. That would open the Greek plays the elites did write about to common enjoyment:

This is not to suggest that the mass public went to the theatre so as to learn Greek myth. There were indeed attractions of a very different order, but there is no profound incompatibility between unblushing delight taken in the most lurid special effects, flames, storms, battles, drives of animals, ghosts and a genuine love for the old tragedies.

That's page 59 and an argument for the serial comma.

The rest is detail, not all about music, pleasant if you like to imagine ancient Rome, not susceptible to more compression. He writes kindly of Lindsey Davis' accuracy in the details of material culture there.

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Posted by clew at 10:48 PM

A Brother's Price, Wen Spencer

Spencer inverts a cliché like a stage-magician turning a set table upside down and dining from it; one of the underlying assumptions is completely gone, but all the rest are reinforced.

It's basically a Regency romance, this, in which the gently-reared ingenu of a gentry house must Marry Well for their fortunes; when he daringly rescues someone from bandits, and the someone turns out to be royalty pursued by traitors, and moreover the royalty needs to get married too, and they're all beautiful and they like each other... well, we're pretty sure we know how it's going to turn out, and then it does.

But I wasn't mis-spelling 'ingenu' up there; Spencer has a consistent world in which healthy men are so rare that living brothers are the main economic asset of a family. There's a really impressive lack of As-you-know-Bob; the characters give us background while arguing about what to do, but no-one explains all the history everyone knows.

So the funniest thing about the Regency romance is that it makes, if anything, more sense in this world than it did in ours; the extreme, dehumanizing sexism which always points up the escape of the heroine is no weaker in Spencer's reversed formulation, and the root need is species survival, not inherited wealth.

It's no better a system, of course. It fits my loose belief that the willingness to oppress classes of people, no matter how much one loves members of the class, may begin with material need but becomes an end in itself. Now, Spencer isn't at all preachy about this, which she partly doesn't have to be because we knoooow that oppressing men is wrong - Man bites Dog - and partly doesn't have to be because it's also a subtext of lots of romances (pretty much all the ones with spunky heroines who can ride, as opposed to tender ones who can suffer).

I have a mental test for said romances, kind of like the Mo Movie Measure, which in fact I apply to wish-fulfillment literature in general; is the gift (love, superpowers, inheritance) used to amend the injustice? In Regency romances, the Improbably Ethical Endings usually have her dowry legally under her control, or his money and power used to protect orphans and legless veterans, or so forth.

In A Brother's Price, it only helps one person. In fact, his whole life is charmed. So the adventure/love story is restful, but not interesting.

The worldbuilding is great, though. My theory about the cause - all spoilers from here - is that syphilis, which does damage pregnancies, mutated to be almost always lethal to male infants. That would cause the sex imbalance. Even societies that understand transmission don't control STDs, so syphilis would still be endemic in the population, serving as a motive to value chastity. The second zinger Spencer adds makes it just imaginable that most families actually maintain chastity; family successsion from cohort to cohort of sisters, one generation the mothers of the next with the husband they all share. Now, this is a solid fix from the point of view of the gene, which is why bees and maybe lions work this way. It's also an imaginable human society, because each sister has to stay clean or her sisters will catch it through their mutual - and irreplacable - husband. Husbands don't have the power to enforce chastity, any more than wives can in patriarachal societies; but sisters and mothers do. Law and economy have to change to reflect this; basically sisters are legally one person - they might get knighted, for instance, and become the Sirs Lastname, or they might all be executed for the treason one of them commits. Very nice. Finally, the technology is plausible assuming that this variant of syphilis arose in the discovery of the New World and wiped out nearly everyone, leaving a very weakly European society to regenerate over some hundreds of years.

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Posted by clew at 10:11 PM

August 26, 2005

The Family Trade, Charles Stross

In Iron Sunrise and Singularity Sky I was bowled over by Stross' ability to live up to, indeed build on, all the drama and bombast of the microgenre while kindly and affectionately taking the piss out of it.

I was disappointed for most of The Family Trade because it didn't seem to be doing that; seemed to be just chugging along in the train of Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. The crossover characters are female, which is a little different, but then they're accidental-career tech writers, which is awfully self-indulgent; there are too many IT grunts reading SF for this sort of thing, you know, BOFH saves the multiverse, not to seem a soft pitch to the peanut gallery. Also, the start of the action seems just dead slow.

On the other hand, it's not as inactive as the last Amber pastiche I read. Maybe Zelazny had this endless subcritical power-up and I just don't remember it. Also on the justifying hand, the accidental-career tech writers aren't bad as plot hooks because they will clearly use what they learned for their curtailed first careers.

And finally, the glorious jerk on the rug as far as the genre goes, our modern heroine flung into a secret and decadent aristocracy doesn't like it. It's not just that she makes sure she learns the maids' names and cries when she eats their oysters. She doesn't like it either viscerally or in detail and (plot spoiler) she has a plan to fix it, fiat justicia. That could get interesting.

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Posted by clew at 07:37 PM

44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith

I found this very pleasant to read, but not memorable afterward. It was written for serialization, not just because the author happened to have such a contract but because he thought serialization would be an interesting experiment. The result is sort of gossipy and unordered, which realism is one of his strengths.

I was fascinated by one material detail, that a posh Edinburgh house had a 'drying room' in which everyone's undies were put on racks to dry. Now, I know the UK has clothes-dryers. Is it swank because old-fashioned to have a dedicated room? Swank because expensive? Swank because you can maintain more delicate clothes? Not swank, just one of those things old houses have? Not swank, just the way houses there are built?

From the vivid wooly descriptions of an acquaintance who studied in Edinburgh, I'd hedge all these rationalist material explanations with the possibility that it's a damp clammy way to live and that appeals to Edinburgh ascetics. But I know nothing about it.

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Posted by clew at 07:08 PM

Axel's Castle, Edmund Wilson

Well, how embarrassing. I think I thought about some of Wilson's analysis of Symbolist literature, but I only remember the parts that agreed with suspicions I already had. Principally I'm comforted that The Remembrance of Things Past wasn't going to get less depressing than Swann's Way and that all the people were in fact self-defeating in more or less morally unpleasant ways. I'll happily forgo the technical skill of Proust's dying world; if I want to be in it I'd rather visit, say, the jolly brothers Goncourt.

And second recognition; T. S. Eliot goes all high-church & his verse turns into iffy Yeats.

The chapter on Gertrude Stein is unusually convincing in its argument that she's unreadable but fundamentally important, like the Velvet Underground I suppose; and the one on James Joyce is fun because it was written during Finnegans Wake's original serialized publication. Wilson is not so overcome by Joyce's method. There are publications devoted to Joyce and hypertext, though there seems to be no hypertext of FW or U; famously the surviving holder of copyright is "a Joyce not a Joycean", so there probably won't be, either. Pity.

Axel of the eponymous Castle sounds a totally unreadable pile and madly seductive to the touchy young: like The Fountainhead or The Flame of Araby. Castles! Cryptonomicon-sized piles of gold! gorgeous young Rosicrucian aristocrats who fall in love while trying to kill each other, only Axel persuades her to an immediate joint suicide because even for them no life could be as good as their fantasies... It's really just as well I didn't come across this at fourteen. To my surprise, Axel isn't online; not on Project Gutenberg, not at the Online Books Page. There are hard copies, some in what sound like lovely nineteenth-c. editions, what with Symbolists enjoying the decorative arts. The author Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (count de, etc.), is all biographized and everything.

There's a nice bit about the importance of sleep to the Symbolists, both as a naturally Symbolist realm and a suitably lethargic revolt against the demands of the modern world. It might cross Rosicrucianism, too; The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance mentioned that some esoteric adepts regarded sleep as a mystic art, one with which they could see or do what they could not waking.

With that in mind, I was dubious of Wilson's closing paragraph, which is largely a defense of the Symbolists' dreaming retreat into "things that are dying—the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer&mdash" Well, but the whole tradition includes the parts that did and the parts that didn't have science and democracy as their descendants. Not that there's a clear line between those parts, any more than The Metaphysical Club could lay out distinct parentage for modern political alliances. I get massively annoyed by accounts that assume the only 'real' or interesting part of the past was the part most like us (e.g., The System of the World) and on nearly the same principle am annoyed by accounts that assume that the only 'good' or interesting part of the past is the part we've given up.

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Posted by clew at 06:13 PM

Mrs. Hudson and the Malabar Rose, Martin Davies

In which Mrs. Hudson and her tweeny Flotsam solve a couple of Holmes' cases, principally by paying attention to things that servants always see and the Great Detective only pretends to. It doesn't exactly undercut Holmes, but it hardly extends the myth.

Lots of lively Willkie Collins-ish action, though; fun costume fic.

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Posted by clew at 04:54 PM

August 22, 2005

Lord Byron's Novel: the Evening Land, John Crowley

There weren't any surprises, wch I found disappointing. The parallels between the 19th c. family and novel and the 21st c. family and letters were too smooth, even though the modern half seems to be trying to persuade us that there aren't any real villains any more, or even real errors. By the standards of 19th c. fiction, even in the smoothed-out prose given here, the modern story is too easy to be interesting or even credible. I can, from the view of Byron here used, just imagine that he was working away from the Aberdonian concept of Christian sin, but I cannot imagine that he would have abandoned the idea of sins against, say, personal ideals, or Romantic truths.

The only open question at the end of both novels is whether the internal one, accepted as a nearly-lost work of George, Lord Byron, was a forgery, and if so was it forged by his daughter Ada Lovelace? Which is plausible; she certainly needed to "forge the uncreated conscience of h[er] race". But as far as I'm concerned Crowley only sets up the problem, he doesn't work through cases for the possible answers, or what they would imply.

The unavoidable comparison is to A. S. Byatt's Possession, which sets more puzzles. (Well, perhaps the Vigenere cipher and the email correspondence are meant to be taken as puzzles, although we aren't given enough of the first to chew on, and the second ought to be quotidian by now. They may be symbols, but as dry bones only which do not live.) Byatt answers more of the 19th c. puzzles, and sets up a happy ending suitable for a comedy, so it has taken me some thought to decide why I thought her book was more rigorous even though it finally turns out to be more fun. It's the characterization, I think; her people suffer more and enjoy more, my favorite being the sexual metaphor that rapidly turns into reading. Crowley's characters were more schematic, more like early David Lodge.

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Posted by clew at 03:57 PM

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand

It's tempting to read this history of several score influential American thinkers, active from the Civil War to the New Deal and the Espionage Act, as allegories of current politics; certainly there's not much new in politics and the rhetoric is reused. It is not immediately useful to read it so. The ideas and interests were allied in ways they aren't now, as in the Dartmouth case, for example, p. 240 and following. The Epilogue is readable on its own, either as a summary or as a bridge from its period to the politics of the twentieth century.

The variable alliance of a principle is itself one of the large philosophical ideas fought over by the subjects of the book. I'm terrible at philosophy, so I probably still don't understand pragmatism, but what I got is that pragmatism is the belief that the principles on which we act are chosen more by their results than by our abstract beliefs. Or perhaps, that the principles we think we have aren't the ones we really have, and our real ones tend to be more practical.

The vivid example from early in The Metaphysical Club is of divided sentiment, but undivided loyalty, in our Civil War; one man in particular was long remembered by Oliver Wendell Holmes and his friends for being, by nature, a Cavalier, more sympathetic to the style and maybe the principles of the South than of the Federals; but he fought with his Boston friends and with courage that could not be surpassed by a martyr in a chosen cause. Holmes, according to Menand, derived his pragmatism partly to explain this.

Chewing this over, maybe the connection between this and the everday use of 'pragmatic' is that a pragmatic person, if faced with a dilemma, picks one horn to attack; someone of a more Hamlet temperament commits mutually confounding actions, or none. There's still much I don't get, though. Near the end, Menand sums it up as "we know we're right before we know why we're right" (p. 353), but how do we square that with our memories of sometimes being plump wrong?

Swedenborg appears, causing religious conversion instead of science-fiction, which is surely contingent on era: the father of William James and Henry James reported "some damnèd shape squatting invisible to me... raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life." (p.82). This is called a 'vastation', than which H. P. Lovecraft could have done no better. Other guest appearances: Leibniz' monads (p. 270); gravity as something that evolved by natural selection (p. 278), a concept that made less sense without the many-worlds hypothesis; Dewey vs. Plato (p. 361), Dewey holding that ideas are instruments, like hands or forks, not anything pertaining to the Ideal.

As a historical group, the pragmatists seem to have been good at ameliorating problems but not at changing the underlying system. The Civil War had been enough of the latter. Jane Addams is in this crowd, with others from How Women Saved the City, and I don't know who fed more bodies or changed more laws while arguing that all the important change was done in personal beliefs. This non-radical-ness comes up most clearly in their weak reactions to the race problem. Holmes could fight for the Union but not for universal suffrage, and his intellectual descent was insufficient support for the Civil Rights movement. P. 441:

The great movement to secure civil liberties in the United States during the Cold War arose out ofa religious community, black Southern Baptists, and it was founded on the belief that every individual has an inalienable right to those freedoms by virtue of being human—precisely the individualism that Holmes and Dewey felt they needed to discredity

On the other hand, though Menand doesn't quite say so, the residual habits of the pragmatists may have kept the Cold War from going everywhere Hot. As I say, a good system for ameliorating problems.

There are two connected sub-themes I'm not even trying to summarize, one on the science of race (Agassiz, Boas) and the other on the development of academic freedom and university structure in the US. The "educational organicism" (p. 248) reminded me tangentially of an excellent essay on education by Dorothy Sayers; each come to conclusions they share with other people but they build on contradictory axioms.

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Posted by clew at 02:36 PM

August 19, 2005

The Principal Navigations... of the English Nation, v14, America part 3, Richard Hakluyt

When reading history or historical fiction, and especially when arguing about present mores based on past actions, it's easy to wonder how past people justified actions that to us seem obviously in contradiction with their beliefs. On the whole, I think they did what we do, and mostly failed to live up to their beliefs without trying to pretend they had... A snippet in support:

Afterward they mended the other ship from Saturday till Munday, during which time all those were shriuen that had not confessed, and receiued the communion, and it was resolued by charge of the confessors, that all those seale-skins which they had taken from the Indians should bee restored againe; and the Generall gaue charge to Francis Preciado to restore them all, charging him on his conscience so to doe.

This is a translated report of a very early Spanish investigation up the coast of California; the ships have put in for recaulking, because one of them is too leaky and they've both lost too much of their furnishing, but they aren't particularly in fear of their lives. From what context I get from proofreading the passage, they're actually having a good voyage and enjoying their harbor and expecting to make it at least halfway home.

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Posted by clew at 07:02 PM

August 16, 2005

The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, Joscelyn Godwin

Readers will have their own opinions on whether men, and women, are psychologically different now from what they were 400 or 10,000 years ago. It is the kind of opinion that is unlikely to be shaken by argument, because for the historically-minded, much of ones worldview hinges on it. The present book is intended as a modest contribution to the question, not so much in the hope of resolving it as of stirring up the waters and foiling any attempt at an easy answer.

The specific question to which Godwin gives no easy answer is: When the new humanists of the Renaissance started surrounding themselves with classical culture, building temples with statues of antique gods, and dressing, for some special occasions, as like the ancients as they could, what did they think they were doing?

One of the answers is that it was an escape from the actual religious pain of the time. Philosophers who couldn't answer the questions that rent Europe with religious wars could escape into a 'religion' which had no conflict because no-one really believed it.

Another answer is that they were doing magic; that enacting images of a perfected world, images full of hidden meanings and correspondences, would bring this world closer to perfection. How this compared to Christian ceremony, I don't know. Godwin points out connections both to esoteric traditions that may have believed they were doing magic, and to public spectacle used to cause political faith... Oddly, he says we have no modern parallel to the heroic entries and processions, when I think I've seen citizen-parades with mythic allegories in several towns: on the Fourth, of course, but also for military occasions and Gay Pride parades. Opera, to close the circle, was developed by classicizing musicians.

The subject-matter is still, as it was when new, pretty and suggestive to look at with only its exoteric meanings. Godwin provides many illustrations, because he's concentrating on visual art; unfortunately they're smallish and blurry on uncoated paper, but they're good enough for pointers to pretty copies. There are also plentiful pointers in the text to arguments for mystical meanings, even to claims that secret orders maintained esoteric meanings for centuries, while their members were Christian prelates and kings. The text itself is very un-argumentative on the subject, saying, particularly of gardens such as the Villa d'Este, that these claims can likely never be proved to reason, but to walk through the garden spells it out to the imagination.

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Posted by clew at 06:51 PM

August 13, 2005

Traditional Woodworking Handtools, Graham Blackburn

I actually want a book that might be called "Traditional Woodworking with Handtools"; one with no interest in collecting the tools, knowing their provenance etc., but rather organized around what I want to do to a piece of wood, with an explanation of what tools and procedure you'd do it with. The O'Reilly 'cookbooks' are doubtless my model. You'd think such a book would be useful and therefore popular and easy to find, but on the whole I find either books on specific projects, which I can sometimes take apart for their component techniques; or books on all the uses of one tool, ditto; or, like this, a book about many kinds of tools. This one is useful because, although it's organized by tool, it organizes the tools by purpose; and discusses them with enough practicality to summarize their use and jigging and sharpening.

Ah, sharpening, there's the rub. Clearly it makes plenty of people anxious, given the many this-is-how-I webpages (for which I'm often grateful). Traditional Woodoworking Handtools has a couple pages on sharpening cabinet scrapers, which make clear the results I want but not how the amateur-handed can get there. I might have put together an adequate jig for jointing a worn edge, by dint of borrowing a nice true piece of scrap titanium from my other half and buying a new undished stone; but putting the hook on is just beyond me, by hand. (And now you know some of what I've been doing instead of writing book-reviews, or indeed reading anything that requires thought.) Conveniently, Lee Valley makes a little device that purports to do the hook for you; today I'll see.

Also conveniently, scrapers are pretty cheap and often come with a nice edge, but treating them as disposable doesn't seem right.

Back to the book at hand; I think it would be delightful for a collector who also used the tools, and it's mildly useful for how-to purposes. There's one little oddity in the typesetting; the font is slightly old-fashioned (don't recognize it & can't find a colophon), and ligatures the 'st' and 'ct' letter-pairs. This looks wrong to me; it ligatures all of them, when I feel - suspect - that in the best typesetting ligatures have something to do with position in the word; and it doesn't ligature 'ft', which I just as nebulously feel really ought to be tied. Anyhow, I thought the effect on reading was more lumpy and precious than elegantly archaic.

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Posted by clew at 11:42 AM

August 02, 2005

The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter

I can't not make the pun: this is great noir. It's an obvious joke because the setting of the novel is in wealthy black America; it's not a joke, because that setting is as treacherous as the best film noir ones ever were. The exact paranoia is that the hero knows that some of the people around him are betraying him, indeed that almost any of them might, and not only does he not know who, but because his life and wealth arises from social connections he has to pretend he trusts everyone.

Not that the hero pulls this off, since in the first place he's a reasonably fallible mortal and can't fake trust that well; and in the second place the plot has as many wills and graveyards and assassins as silver could put on celluloid.

It isn't In the Time of Our Singing, which is more complicated in psychology and prose (but pushes the assassinations farther offstage).

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Posted by clew at 12:23 AM

The Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein

Just as good as the first two, without either dropping plots or slowing the pace; in fact, I am wondering whether any of the detailed background will stay background, or whether 'Here there be Monsters' will always unfold into a whole new ecology, anthropology, and tearjerking adventure story. I was getting a little breathless. I worried that the heroine, tough and brilliant as she is, should be getting worse than breathless, but one advantage of traveling by foot and small boat is that she has weeks between terrors and betrayals. Also, she is getting pretty grim.

There is clearly an underlying science fiction story, but I can't tell yet which one it is; there's a whole world of people being lied to, about the nature of high technology for one thing, and they only have eight hundred years of history, but they retain traditions from before this planet. How was their half-amnesiac planet set up? It seems to have run pretty well, suggesting Foundation psychohistory skills; or maybe it's just that a society with a land base that expands every year is relatively easy to run.

There's also a good brisk sailing adventure requiring that the anchor get thrown overboard; not Patrick O'Brien, but
funnier: 'Little snails!'

To my tremendous dismay, I am told that Kirstein is having trouble getting the remaining books in the series published; but I want to read them, oh yes I do.

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Posted by clew at 12:11 AM
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